December 13, 2018
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Millionaire’s nonprofit quietly buys 7 miles of Maine coast

An organization funded by a millionaire philanthropist is expanding its Maine recreational investments into Washington County with purchases of about seven miles of shoreline at a cost that outsiders estimate at almost $2 million.

The Butler Conservation Fund has since summer 2016 acquired shorefront tracts in Lubec and Trescott that will host outdoor recreational and educational activities along Cobscook Bay. Its multi-use recreational trails — and a small park in West Lubec — will open in fall 2019, said Carl Carlson, the foundation’s director of conservation infrastructure projects.

Butler is among a group of emerging players in Maine’s tourist economy landscape: the philanthropic, ecotourist nonprofit. Its Washington County work follows a similar effort — a $5 million outdoor education facility in Soldiertown Township near Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument that will open in October 2018.

The projects have the same goal: To help people avail themselves of Maine’s extraordinary beauty through non-motorized recreation in a way that bolsters local economies.

Cobscook Bay’s beauty attracted Gilbert Butler decades ago, Carlson said. An environmental philanthropist since 1988, Butler created the foundation to preserve nature after a highly successful career developing alternative investment vehicles for pension funds and endowments.

“It’s a wild and almost untouched landscape. You get a sense of being in a remote wilderness even though you are very close to several towns,” Carlson said Thursday of the bay area. “I’ve heard it described as having all the beauty of Acadia National Park with none of the crowds. It’s a place that is, for the most part, still undeveloped and therefore savable for conservation purposes.”

Siphoning tax dollars

Butler’s bayshore purchases might be controversial, said Heather Henry-Tenan, interim president of the Lubec Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Butler is taking away income that could be generated from taxes,” Henry-Tenan said of the nonprofit’s right to apply for tax-exempt status for its projects and land purchases. “It’s become a bone of contention in the community.”

Some residents resent the tax losses and fear their implications, said Henry-Tenan, who co-owns the Eastland Motel of Lubec and supports the foundation’s efforts.

Like many areas of Maine, the bay towns’ traditional industries, such as fishing, are struggling to maintain themselves. Newcomers can change these communities in ways that some residents resent, said Sharon Kiley Mack, executive director of the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and retired BDN reporter who covered Washington County.

Butler hasn’t yet applied for tax-exempt status on its purchases, said Arthur Smallidge, a local guide who helped Butler acquire the properties.

Carlson declined to state exactly how many parcels Butler has purchased or how much money the foundation has paid in taxes on them.

Lubec’s real estate tax commitment book for 2017 lists seven properties that paid a total of $23,582 in taxes that year. An eighth property, in Trescott, is listed at the Washington County Registry of Deeds.

Both sets of land are listed as owned by Maine Paddling & Cycling Trails LLC, which Lubec Town Administrator Renee Gray identified on Friday as a purchasing agent for the foundation.

Carlson said that the foundation likely wasn’t paying much by way of taxes on its properties because their previous owners successfully applied to have them taxed under Maine’s Open Space and Tree Growth tax programs.

The Open Space program taxes properties “as open space land based on its current use as open space, rather than its potential fair market value for more intensive uses other than open space. To qualify for open space classification, land must be preserved or restricted in use to provide a public benefit,” according to an explanation of the law at maine.gov.

Tree Growth resembles the Open Space program in that it taxes properties that have “been classified as forest land on the basis of productivity value, rather than on just value” — a value generally held to be lower than the land would get under a fair-market review.

Local benefits

Butler is working with other economic development agencies and its host towns to determine how to best help the local economy and attain its own goals, he said.

Butler has begun to help the Lubec economy, Carlson said.

It has built a basketball court at Lubec’s elementary school and hopes to further add to the town’s quality of life with a 77-acre recreation area it is creating. Once a campground, Red Point Park — one of Butler’s acquisitions — thrusts into West Lubec’s South Bay and will offer public spaces for hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, camping and other non-motorized fun, Henry-Tenan said.

“It is likely some of the most beautiful shorefront in Lubec. It will be the perfect place to launch a kayak,” Henry-Tenan said. “You can meander for days in and out of its coves.”

“Red Point is being designed as a sort of town park for Lubec. This will include a small trail system, picnic areas and opportunity for programing use by town organizations,” Carlson said. “Our thought is that the properties [Butler has purchased] will all be linked” by trails.

Butler’s work will add to a collection of trails that is longer than those at Acadia. The national park has 120 miles of trails. The Cobscook Bay area has 138 miles, Henry-Tenan said.

A recreational destination

The Lubec area is crowded with organizations like Butler, which joins Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Downeast Coastal Conservancy, Roosevelt Campobello International Park, Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge and the state as nonprofit organizations that have purchased parcels for recreational use in the Lubec area.

All of those groups are part of the Cobscook Trails Coalition, which advertises itself as a consortium of public and private landowners who support nature-based tourism in eastern Washington County.

The trails, plus Cobscook Bay State Park, help brand the Lubec area as a recreational destination, said Henry-Tenan, who believes that the revenue the organization helps generate from tourism will more than offset any tax losses.

Butler’s Soldiertown Township project already generates income from about 3,500 student visits annually, said Matthew Polstein, a Katahdin region entrepreneur who helps run it.

But the impact of the rebranding effort has continued to elude many Lubec residents. Poverty plagues the region. Surveys show that one in four children in Washington County are food-insecure, Mack said, with many residents working as many as five jobs year-round to sustain themselves.

“You have people who live here four months a year and that’s difficult to balance when you have to make living here year-round,” Mack said.

Butler will succeed if it informs the local communities of its plans, and listens to the responses, Mack said.

“It’s a great idea. I think that as unpleasant and difficult as it can be for some of these communities to see land go off the tax rolls, there are people here that also recognize that these places need protection,” Mack said.

“If they are on a route to make a fast buck, then there will be objections,” Mack added. “It appears that this corporation is offering a real [recreational] experience. We recognize that we don’t have swamp up here. We have incredible beauty up here and we want to preserve that.”

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